"It wasn't until the bus had vanished around the corner that..."
|It wasn't until the bus had vanished around the corner that Mary Alice realized that she had left her purse in the seat beside her. Her wallet with her license and credit cards and cash, her keys, her cell phone -- all en route to California while she stood on a platform in -- she squinted at the sign in the gathering gloom - in Penfield, Illinois, with nothing more to her name than a t-shirt, a faded pair of jeans, and a light jacket that was quickly becoming inadequate in the chill evening air. She dug around in her pockets, hoping against hope that she had stuck her visa in her back pocket like her mother was always telling her not to do, but found only the twenty-one cents she had received in change from Burger King earlier that day.
Mary Alice sank despondently onto the bench beside the bus stop and buried her head in her hands. This was surely the last straw. All that remained lacking were the proverbial peal of thunder and drenching downpour that always accompanied perfectly horrid days. She had barely finished the thought before she felt a tiny pinprick of wetness upon her face. Apparently the clouds, too, were so tired that they could not muster the energy needed to provide a good thunderstorm, settling instead for a half-hearted drizzle.
Still, it was enough to get Mary Alice to her feet. She stood at one end of Penfield's main street, which stretched out into town on her right. It lay deserted, its shops closed for the evening. She had thought, getting off the bus, that if she were two inches taller, she could probably see clear to the other end of town on a cloudless day. She doubted whether the town boasted a gas station, much less a motel. Then she remembered that she had no money to pay for a room anymore, so it hardly mattered.
Her feet carried her listlessly into town. She knew no one in Penfield, or in all of Illinois, for that matter. This town was simply the furtherest ticket west she could get when she approached the ticket counter this morning. The need to get away had been too great, and she had bought her fare on the spot with a couple of crumpled bills and no idea where she was headed.
Her foot struck a rock, sending it flying. Startled, Mary Alice looked up to find herself under a streetlamp on a side road that was more dirt than paving. A few houses lined the side of the street, their windows dark. Suddenly, as she stared around in the dark, the wave of despair that had been building for the past week crested within her. Tears overflowed and mixed with the spattering of drops from the sky. She bit down on her lip, fighting to keep from breaking down entirely. The thought of a good cry was terribly tempting, but Gary hated it when she cried. Had hated it when she cried, actually. The memory of his face brought forth a new surge of longing, and she couldn't quite stop the whimper that escaped her.
"Miss?" asked a deep voice behind her.
Mary Alice jerked around, scared nearly out of her wits. A flashlight shone into her eyes and she squinted, trying to see the person behind it. "Wh-who's there?"
The light lowered and the voice said soothingly, "Whoa, there, miss. I don't mean any harm." An elderly gentleman stepped into the cirle of light under the streetlamp. He examined her silently, noting her swollen nose and the redness of her eyes. Her face, usually smooth and pretty, was blotchy with emotion, making her freckles stand out. "You alright, miss?" he asked.
Mary Alice nodded hesitantly, thinking that the man looked like no one more than Santa Claus, though with a shorter haircut and minus the spectacles. His hair was the same shining silver, complete with a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. His cheeks were round and rosy, and his eyes twinkled kindly as he watched her.
"Haven't seen you around town before, miss. Where're you headed?"
Since there was no way to answer that, Mary Alice remained silent.
He considered her gravely, wondering what such a young girl -- she looked no more than nineteen at most -- would be doing out alone at night. Then he noticed her shivers. "You oughtn't to be wandering around in the cold, miss. My house is just a little ways yonder. Why don't you come up and I'll make you a nice hot cup of tea?"
Mary Alice opened her mouth to refuse, but the low rumbling of thunder in the distance warned that the storm would be intensifying. And what other option did she have? So she nodded again and followed the gentleman up the road.
His house turned out to be a small, two-story affair, with a porch in front and flower beds all around. A tiny garage stood to the side. When he snapped on the lights, she saw a cozily furnished living room, with the kitchen and dining area crowded to one side. A sturdy wooden staircase spiraled upwards. The inside smelled faintly of tobacco and books.
At his invitation, she took a seat at the table while he bustled around the kitchen, setting some water to boiling. She took advantage of the silence to try and compose a story that might explain her present state, but when he set a steaming cup of tea in front of her and took the opposite chair, he only smiled at her and asked no questions. Mary Alice wrapped her hands around the hot cup. "Thanks, Mister... uh..."
"Mason," he supplied, blowing on his tea. "But everyone just calls me Henry."
"Oh. Thanks, Mr... uh, Henry. My name's Mary Alice." He nodded. "I, uh, I guess you're wondering..." she trailed off, unsure how to proceed.
Henry smiled to put her at ease. She reminded him of his daughter, when Janice had tried to explain why she couldn't keep curfew. "You don't got to explain if you don't want to." He chuckled slightly at her startled expression. "Now, you got someplace to go for the night, miss?" He knew the answer even before she blushed and shook her head; she had the same hangdog air as he'd seen with many people pushed to their extremes. "Well, Mary Alice, there's a spare bedroom upstairs, if you don't mind it being a bit cramped. I think some of Janice's old things will fit you, if you want to spend the night here." Henry had always had a soft spot in his heart for strays of all kinds.
"Oh! I-I couldn't," she stammered, feeling the heat rise in her face. "I don't have any way to repay, I mean..."
He waved away her hesitancy. "Don't mention it. Can't let a young girl like you spend the night outside. Nellie would be spinning in her grave at the mere suggestion. My wife," he added, seeing her confusion. "Died 'bout five years ago."
"I'm sorry," Mary Alice said awkwardly. She fixed her eyes on her tea, trying to sort out her jumbled thoughts. Could she trust this man? He seemed friendly enough, but why would anyone just invite a complete stranger into his home and offer to put them up for the night? Then again, the rain was coming down harder than ever. She couldn't afford to get sick, especially not now... "Alright," she agreed quietly. "If you're sure..."
The next morning, Mary Alice opened her eyes to the sound of birdsong in the tree outside. She blinked at the sunlight streaming in through the window, then sat up with a gasp as the previous day's events caught up with her. She regretted it almost immediately as nausea overtook her, sending her to the bathroom. She emerged a minute later, pale and miserable, and descended the stairs to find a note on the table.
"Mary Alice," said the note, "Help yourself to toast and eggs. Henry." Sure enough, breakfast was still warm upon the stove. The thought of eggs made her stomach churn again, but she managed to nibble some toast and force down some orange juice.
After she finished, she washed and dried the dishes, then stood in the living room, at a loss. Henry was nowhere in evidence, and she still didn't know what she was going to do with herself. Finally, she pulled open the front door and stood on the porch, hoping to find her host outside. The sound of hammering caught her attention, and she picked her way through the wet grass to the garage.
Henry knelt next to a battered crate, prying away at it with a crowbar and muttering under his breath. Mary Alice guessed that this was his workroom, because instead of a car, the walls were lined with tools and a worktable stood in the middle of the room.
"Good morning," she called shyly.
Henry wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled. "Morning, Mary Alice. Did you have some breakfast?"
"Yes, sir," she said, coming to stand next to him. "I just wanted to say thank you again. For putting me up for the night and everything. I'll make it up to you, I promise."
There was a determined set to her chin that told Henry she meant it and wouldn't take no for an answer, so he just nodded. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like. It gets a bit lonely sometimes, now that Nellie's gone and the kids have all moved away." He thought, but didn't add, that she could probably use a peaceful place to sort through her troubles.
"What is that?" Mary Aliced asked curiously when Henry went back to opening the crate. She could see the gleam of metal within and hear the rattle of smaller parts shifting at the bottom.
Henry grinned, pleased that she had asked. "This, missy, is as close to a treasure horde as you're likely to find outside of some pirate's movie." He finally loosened the lid enough to pull it completely off. A jumble of bars and other parts lay inside.
"Uh," Mary Alice surveyed the mess, wondering what she was looking at.
"I know; it doesn't look like much right now, but once I put it together, you're going to see a real beauty: the Schwinn Paramount!"
Henry sighed and gave her a look of stern disapproval. "Young lady, your generation doesn't even know what it's missing! Haven't you ever heard of Schwinn bicycles?" She shook her head. Henry growled. "They're part of the American tradition, missy! Why, back in their heyday, Schwinns were known as the Cadillacs of American bicycles. You're looking at a 1973 model of the Paramount, one of the best known bikes in the world!" His ran a hand over one of the bars. "I found her at a moving sale. Poor joe who had her didn't even know what he was selling; said she'd been collecting dust in his basement for years."
"Oh. And you're going to assemble it, I guess?"
"That's right." Henry's face lit up at the thought, but then clouded again. He rubbed at his knuckles regretfully. "Or, I would if my arthritis'll just settle down a bit."
Mary Alice chewed on her lip thoughtfully. She didn't know a thing about bicycles or how they were put together, but Henry's disappointed, longing expression tugged at her. He had helped her without knowing or demanding anything of her, and after all, hadn't she just promised to pay him back? "Maybe I can help? If you tell me what to do, I mean," she offered tenatively.
Henry gave her an appraising look. His joints were aching more than usual, and the painkillers didn't seem to be working as well of late. And he did so want to see the Paramount in its full glory. He nodded. "Alright, if you're willing, then so am I."
The first thing to do was to clean the pieces off. While Henry went to fetch a bucket of water, Mary Alice dug through the rag bin. It was full of old t-shirts and small towels, and one old black sock that looked like it had once been a sock puppet before it developed a large hole in the toes. The metal was grimy with filth and cobwebs, and before long both of them were covered in dust and sweat.
Lunch was a quick affair of sandwiches and milk, while Henry recounted more stories about Schwinn bikes. He had picked up a hobby with antiques shortly after retiring, and enjoyed the audience. Mary Alice, much to her own surprise, found that she liked hearing him talk, and the hours passed pleasantly for them both.
Henry called a halt to the work when dusk fell. While he prepared supper, Mary Alice took it upon herself to straighten up the living room. It wasn't that Henry was a slob, but... well, any woman would know instinctively that he led a bachelor lifestyle. She moved books back to their proper places on the shelves, dusted off the mantle, and routed several paper clips, a discarded bottle cap, and a legion of dust bunnies from under the couch.
Their days settled into a predictable pattern. In the mornings they would work together on the bicycle while Henry regaled her with tales of the "old days". In the afternoon, they would take a walk together or do a bit of shopping. The evenings were spent companionably by the fire, either reading or discussing the day's paper. More and more, Mary Alice felt herself slipping into this quiet, retired life.
"What do you plan on doing with it after we're done?" she asked one night.
"I've been thinking about that. I'm certainly too old to ride, and from what you've told me, you've never been on a bike in your life," he said teasingly. "I think I'll make it a birthday gift to my grandson. He's going to be thirteen come summer."
"But he won't even know what he's getting," protested Mary Alice. She had developed almost as much a passion for the bike as Henry. "He'll crash it into curbs, throw it on the ground, scratch the paint, and bend the wheels!"
Henry chuckled. "Aye, he's a right imp for getting into scrapes. But I can't just put her on display. It'd be a crime to keep the Paramount locked up when she's meant to feel the wind roaring past her wheels, to proudly display her speed against whatever poor excuse of a bike those other neighborhood kids might muster up." He gazed contemplatively into the fire. "Sure, she might get scratched or damaged, but that's life. Can't hide away forever 'cause you're afraid of getting hurt. And what does some chipped paint matter anyhow? She'll still be the best thing that's ever graced the road on two wheels. Besides, I'm sure I can fix anything that Joey might do, short of maybe taking a sledgehammer to her," he finished with a chuckle. "No, best thing would be to let her enjoy the road, do what she was built to do."
Mary Alice gave him a sharp look, wondering if he had a double meaning, but he was still looking into the fire. She had still never told him her story, and he had never asked. It was so seductively easy to forget, sometimes.
Suddenly, her stomach turned, and she bolted for the bathroom just in time to be violently sick into the toilet. Henry pounded on the door, asking if she was alright, if he should call a doctor.
"I'm fine," she said weakly, mortified. "Just... please, go away."
The door muffled his words. "I am certainly not going away. If you aren't careful, Mary Alice, you're going to lose that baby."
She pulled open the door and stared at him. "How... how did you know?"
He snorted impatiently. "Young lady, I've had three children and five grandchildren. I should think I'd know morning sickness when I saw it." He frowned, stern once more. "I don't usually go prying into other people's business, but it seems to me that if you're going to have a baby, you should do it with your family around you."
"I can't!" Without knowing why, she found tears in her eyes. "I can't. They wouldn't understand."
He took her hand gently, leading her back to the couch. "I think you'd be surprised."
The sympathy was more than she could stand. She let him wrap his arm around her as they sat and cried brokenly into his shirt while he patted her shoulder. Then, almost against her will, she found herself confessing to him.
She had met Gary two years ago, during a summer study abroad program in Brazil. Being the only ones from the same school, they had felt drawn to each other and spent much of their time together. He was handsome, charming, and funny. On one group field trip through the jungle, the two of them had become separated from the others. They found a beautiful natural waterfall where they picniced on berries, too young to be concerned about becoming lost. There, he had told her he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
They were lovers through his last year at college, and when he took a local job to be near her. She had thought they would be married when she got out of school. She had been overjoyed when she first learned that she was pregnant, and rushed the share the good news with him. Gary had seemed happy, stunned, of course, but happy. A week later, he was gone.
"I can't tell my parents!" Mary Alice sobbed. "I'm so... I feel dirty! They told me that he wasn't any good, and I didn't listen, and now I'm pregnant and if I go home everyone will know! I just can't!"
"You're not dirty, Mary Alice," Henry told her quietly. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of. Aren't you happy to be having this baby? Well then, it's no use letting this Gary ruin it for you. You need your parents support right now, and I'm sure they'll understand and love you no less. That, I promise." He repeated it over and over, holding her while she cried.
"Ain't she beautiful?"
Mary Alice could only nod her agreement as they stood staring at the completed Schwinn Paramount. Its sleek lines emphasized its elegance, while its bright blue paint gleamed proudly in the light. It truly was beautiful.
She looked at Henry and thought of the fifty he'd given her the night before, for helping him on this project and keeping house for him. It would be enough, more than enough, for what she needed to do. "Henry? Can I use your phone for a long distance call?"
He smiled at her, and she knew that he both knew and approved of what she was about to do. "Of course."
Back in the living room, Mary Alice's hand trembled as she dialed the number. The phone rang twice before being answered.
"Oh my God! Mary Alice! Honey, are you okay? Where have you been? The police called and said they found your purse; we thought something had happened! Are you alright?"
Mary Alice laughed through her tears. "I'm fine, Mom. Really, I am." Her heart swelled with all the things she wanted to say, about the baby and the last month in a little town in Illinois and a beautiful blue bicycle. Instead, she chose the most important. "I'm coming home..."